Teach your Children

Teach your Children
Sermon Parshat Vayera
2009

Shabbat Shalom

The singers, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, sing a song with these lyrics

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well,Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.
Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

The struggle between Parents and Children is as old as the history of human beings. When our children are born we have such high hopes about who they will be and what they will accomplish. We want our children to have all that we did not have and to become all that we could not be. We want them to have the benefit of the wisdom we gained throughout our lives, from the trial and error and the hard won lessons we learned in life. This will be our legacy to our children.

But I don’t have to tell you that it doesn’t work that way. We find we can’t prevent our children from repeating the mistakes we made in our lives. The hard won lessons we discover they have to also learn for themselves. As they grow we discover that they don’t want the same things we want for them. They have a path to travel and we have to sometimes, stand aside and let them travel it alone. It is very hard to raise children; it is a task that never ends.

Abraham and Isaac set out on a similar journey. Abraham will take Isaac to the place that God has shown the father. And there, the son will become a sacrifice. Isaac carries the wood and the firestone. And, in what will turn out to be the last time the two of them have a conversation, Isaac asks where the lamb for the offering is. Abraham only gives him the vague answer, “God will provide the lamb”.

Modern commentators of the Bible can’t stand this story of the Binding of Isaac. How can a father raise a knife to his son? What was Abraham thinking? Why doesn’t he protest the command of God as he protested the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? What must Isaac be thinking, silent Isaac, as he draws near to the place of sacrifice and begins to realize that he, Isaac will be the lamb?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, as a young man cried when he read this story. His teacher asked, “Why are you crying? You know the angel will come and save Isaac.” The young scholar replied, “but what if the Angel had arrived a second too late? What would have happened to poor Isaac?” The rabbi comforted him and calmed him by telling him that an angel cannot come late.” Heschel replied, “An angel cannot be late, but a human, made of flesh and blood, may be.”

This story can only have a bad ending. Isaac may survive God’s test of Abraham, but both father and son must leave with an unsettled soul. Abraham shaking that he could have raised a knife to his son. Isaac doomed never to forget the image of his father raising the knife. Abraham comes down off the mountain. There is no mention of Isaac. Perhaps Isaac needed some time alone. Perhaps Isaac realized that he would now have to go his own way.

What is it we are supposed to learn from this story? That God does not want us to sacrifice our children? If so, then just tell the patriarch, don’t have him destroy his relationship with his son by raising the knife. We can even make the case that this not only causes a breach between Isaac and Abraham, but it will bring about the death of Sarah as well. To make a point, the entire family will be destroyed? Abraham will lose his son and his wife. No, there must be a different lesson for us here.

Abraham and Isaac have much that they must still teach each other. Abraham will have to go on in life, without his beloved Sarah, but will still have meaningful relationships and will play with his twin grandchildren. Isaac will teach his father that reconciliation is always possible and in the end, Abraham’s two children, Isaac and Ishmael, will mend the rift in the family and both will be there to bury their father.

We too sometimes carry our resentments about our children with us, letting them drive a wedge in our relationship. Our children don’t often seem to understand the sacrifices we make on their behalf. Just when we think they will appreciate all that we have done for them, they go off on their own, make, what we think are terrible mistakes in their lives and they never really understand who we are. We had dreams for them and they just don’t seem to care. We were prepared to sacrifice everything for them and they will not sacrifice one small part of their lives for us. Such ingratitude. In our anger and frustration we wall them out of our hearts.

If I were to ask the children, the story would be a different path to the same ending. It is not that they don’t appreciate parents, but that parents just can’t let them go so they can find their own way in the world. Everything they do is not enough for the parents. The child grows up but, then realizes that in his parent’s eyes, he will always be a little boy, in need of a parent to help him navigate the world. The child has dreams but the parent does not really seem to care. They work so hard so that parents will appreciate their accomplishments and be proud of the child. But there is only disappointment. “You could have done better, you could have chosen better, you could have been better if only you would have listened to me.” So in anger and frustration they wall their parents out of their hearts.

I stood at the grave of an elderly woman, whose three grown sons gave her just the bare minimum honor a child must do for a parent. The pain between mother and sons was just too great. They did only what a son should do for his mother and no more. They had nothing left in their hearts for her. But the grandson was different. He stayed behind after the funeral and talked to me. He was angry. How could his father be so cruel to a grandmother who was always there for her grandson? How could his father not love this wonderful woman? How could he not see how loving, caring and kind she was? It is not fair Rabbi, it is not fair!

I looked at this angry grandson and said. “ I do not know what pain divided your father from his mother. I don’t know what turned his heart cold to her. But this I do know. You need to have a talk with your father. You need to ask him why he and his brothers were so estranged from their mother. You need to know the answer and you need to know it now. Because if you don’t, someday you will do for your father what he did for his mother, and your children will stand by the grave after you leave and say to the Rabbi “It is not fair!!”

At the end of Abraham’s life, he sees his son married. He finds some happiness with another wife, who takes care of him in his old age. And he lives to see Isaac pass on the spiritual heritage that Abraham has worked so hard to build. Isaac will repeat some of the mistakes of his father. But, in next week’s parsha, when Isaac digs again the wells that Abraham first dug, Isaac will come to understand his father better, and he will forgive him.

We must never give up on our children. We must work hard not to close our hearts to them out of anger and frustration. Their path in life will be as hard and difficult as our path has been. From time to time they will come and ask us how we navigated some of the trickiest parts of life. Sometimes they will follow our advice and sometimes they will make their own mistakes, and learn about life the hard way. I often tell children to at least get advice from their parents as part of their decision making process. But I tell the parents that while we may give advice, we must not be angry if they choose a different path. It is not a rejection of the parent, but just another attempt to find their way through a rough spot in their lives.

So don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry. So just look at them and sigh. And just know that they love you.

May we always find room in our hearts to love our children no matter how they live their lives, and may they always find room in their hearts to know how much we love them. As we say….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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